There is a phrase that I’ve heard bandied about in charismatic circles that is used to describe the way the particular church operates in style/culture/dress/doctrine and aesthetics. It’s the phrase used to described what a service looks and feels like every Sunday morning for the pew-sitter (or see through chair today…)
This phrase permeates through from the top leadership to the parking attendants (if the church has any) and is almost a law to follow for the leader wanting to serve in the church. The church culture of the mega church variety seems to be the go to place for ecclesiology in modern charismatic churches. But does it work? After having attended many church leadership conferences, seen many volunteers meetings and seen countless individuals become part of the well oiled machine of modern mega church philosophy I can see some cracks in the system. Something is leaking in the plumbing of the machines of the mega church apparatus – especially when applying the philosophy to a smaller church.
Huge task – huge ask
The mega church philosophy can be boiled down to several key points to explain how it looks:
Seeker sensitive programs: Every huge church (around 200 or so) has several programs that cater to the comfort, ease and happiness of the attendee. This takes form of childcare facilities, inoffensive kids church programs that entertain them until church is finished, professional cafe facilities, a world class bookstore that stocks the pastors own writings, and extremely complicated, sophisticated and modern lighting & stage design to accompany the musicians. These features also couple with small groups that meet to hang out (hangs…) and chat with each other, Bible study curriculum’s that softly present half truths to congregation members wanting to go deeper into the Word of God, and several age appropriate services for every age group in a family. Each one completely different than the other. Each one is politely designed to cater to the parents and single person so that there’s something to “do” for them so that they’re not bored with church. It’s the entertainment aspect of church so that they can say “wow,” when they walk in and continue there Sunday after Sunday. In a way, it’s a plan to maintain attendance through entertainment.
Secular Music: Yes, many mega churches play secular music during their videos, church services that occur during certain times of the year that have a theme (such as when a new movie comes out, or a fad that facebook has latched onto). And they have fashion parades in church, entertaining cover songs and dramas that contain unchristian elements.
Pop-sermons: Sermons are shorter than traditional churches, and contain unbiblical elements such as movie references, pop culture themes, themed sermons from popular movies, and their exegetical methods are extremely questionable to say the least. They’re usually always about you, your identity, your self esteem, your happiness and how to get every single material blessing possible in this life on earth. A quote from Let Us Reason ministries lays out the foundation for this seeker-driven message preparation tactic:
“The fact that the new model of doing church is to bring people to a seeker friendly service instead of equipping Christians to specifically explain the gospel and lead people to Christ is concerning. Herein lies the problem and the shift of how the church will function. We are to be equipping the saints to do evangelism, rather than bring them into the church so the pastor can give a warm talk about their wants or needs being fulfilled in God, which is NOT the answer. Every Christian is to be equipped and empowered by God to preach the Gospel to a lost and dying world. Mt.28 says as you go, teach and make disciples. Of course there is nothing wrong with bringing people to church to hear the message and familiarize them to the Body of Christ, it’s not either or, but when this is the focus it becomes detrimental to true evangelism.” (Let Us Reason Ministries, 2011)
Sermons based on films, or TV shows, or pop culture, or comic books cannot save men and women – only the gospel can. And a pastor’s job is to “preach the word,” and to “rightly handle God’s word.” Jesus Himself said, “sanctify them with thy word… thy word is truth.” That means that the only way to sanctify a believer is to preach all of the council of God, week in and week out. There’s no other option!
CEO leadership (pyramid style): The leadership structure is eerily similar to that of a large bank or an empire business. There is a visionary. He/she is the one that has been given the major task of casting a vision of what he wants the church to look and act like. This is done with by-the-numbers adherence to Hillsong’s philosophy of “the church I see” vision, which revolves around seeing arenas filled with people listening to word-faith preaching, and world-class facilities built that cost millions to wow the congregation and provide their comfort. The “leaders” under this CEO are to bow to that visionaries every word, including the false teaching they may listen to and introduce, because they hold fast to the “honour” principle – that God only honor’s yes men that never, ever question their leader’s theology or leadership practices. The pastor is not a servant, but an exalted stand in for Jesus who basically feeds the soft gospel messages to the congregation every Sunday who then disappears behind the scenes and organises more leaders to feed more events, and develop more of a bigger business plan for expanding the empire. They handle the “excellence” of the machine so that more people attend through the attractiveness of the service and its style. The CEO is never to be questioned regarding preaching repentance from sin and forgiveness in Christ, because those truths are always neglected in favour of a more “nice” message that keeps people laughing, happy and entertained. The goal of the CEO is to be untouchable to the common congregation, and unquestionably perceived as a “good leader” by people. This often leads to bad theology, poor advice to members, limited knowledge of the scriptures and a mishandling of God’s word in general by everyone who trains under the leader. It produces the doctrinal “bad fruit” spoken of by Jesus Himself in Matthew chapter 7 systemically, altering the gospel, and every other doctrine taught and purported by every leader after the head.
This is true of every mainstream mega church. Now, granted there are some really, really large churches that have Godly, approachable, winsome and gospel centred pastors out there (Village Church, Calvary Chapel, Harvest Christian Fellowship, Time Square Church, Brook Hills etc), and these churches have pastors who have worked out how to run their services as good shepherds of their flocks whilst having so many people; but by and large the biggest churches in the entire world are largely heretical in doctrine, with absolutely mammoth salaries for the pastors and a categorically undeniable penchant for widely known false teaching.
Bigger does not always necessarily mean badder (but mostly, sadly, it does).
Unwavering goal to turn small biblical churches into seeker-driven churches: The seeker driven/mega-church model is so successfully numerically, that it almost forces small Pentecostal or compromising on a sliding scale-type churches to adopt the exact same principles as these churches use to grow their congregation. The problem lies in the culture and context of these mega-churches of origin. Usually they’re in cities. Because cities are big… so the churches can be that big… rural churches are small. Usually with 50 people or less on average. There’s less members. Less volunteers. Less musicians. Less people to make the “big ideas” happen. Less money coming in to support these grand ideas. Less likely to be hipsters who are into lattes and iPad preaching and way, way more farmers/labourers/mums/graziers/tradesman and fisherman than in the city. The outreach target is different than the inner city. Therefore, the premise that all churches need to be flashy, big, loud, bold, have women preaching and entertaining skits quickly turns into an embarrassing charade when nobody in the congregation or the town knows what on earth the church is doing hosting a rock concert church service for under 25 year olds… led by over 40 year olds… it’s just awkward from the outset. The cutout appearance of a club cannot work in a country setting, and when it’s attempted… well, the men cannot sing the songs, the kids all get taught how awesome they are and how they don’t need to change a thing about them before God, and the leaders play DVD’s from Hillsong Conference and the members wonder why on earth Bobbie Houston is preaching on “finding your purpose using telepathy.” The aim of mega-churches is to plant smaller churches, or take them over, an turn them into miniature versions of their enormous “mother churches,” and breeding a culture of yes men/women in leadership that never question doctrine, never search the scriptures to see if what the visionary is saying is actually true, and make other rural Biblical churches look like dead, old, useless wastelands where nobody is “moving with the spirit.” This dichotomy is literally what occurs when a town suddenly gets a “mini mega church.” It steals away members of other congregations because it has more “comforts,” and “programs,” then steals away their joy in knowing the true and living God by turning away their members to fables and lies, then to top it off they never promote or actively seek to support Biblical churches in their Biblical evangelistic efforts. It’s kind of the equivalent to a corporate takeover, without any severance or compassion… It’s a re-shaping of church altogether and a completely underhanded way of doing it.
This causes burnout for the leaders involved.
It over stretches the leaders who are there to make visionary’s dreams occur. The up and coming leaders are expected to attend every conference on church growth, every mid week thing the church is offering and to agree with the bad theology of large Australian and US churches that are all operating the same way. This is all so that the church runs so smoothly and look so good that sinners will hear about how wonderful the aesthetics are (the food, friends, programs and band) that they are then drawn to the gospel. It’s literally from the lips of Australian Christian Churches state execs to make sinners, “belong (to church) first, then believe” the gospel. It hampers the true gospel because it places the felt needs of the “seeker” ahead of the Biblical mandate to “preach the whole counsel of God.” Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders ends like this in the book of Acts, and is needed in pastor’s minds today:
…26“Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27“For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. 28“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.…
Not only is the shepherd to preach all of God’s attributes, works and character, but to guard the sheep from false teachings and teachers that infiltrate the congregation via blogs, the web, DVD’s, smart-phones and alleged “direct revelation from God” that the latest bookstore best selling author gives via Christian TV.
Yes. Rediscovering what the early church did – and preaching the actual gospel that the actual apostles received, and Jesus Himself taught which is this in Luke 24:47:
…46and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, 47and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48“You are witnesses of these things.…
Jesus wants repentance from sin and forgiveness in Christ preached to the nations. Not a “wonderful purpose,” or that …”God has a wonderful plan sometime…” That wouldn’t work on a dying man with 3 minutes to live, and neither would it work on an unregenerate sinner who is not seeking after God.
It’s quite possible to reach souls for Christ using modern equipment and methods… however, it is an utter tragedy when absolutely everything good that church has done for millennia is discounted as “old, outdated and in need of change,” when there are imperatives that cannot be altered. Such as the actual gospel message. Such as the need for local evangelism where the law and gospel is preached thoroughly and with great passion. Such as singing theologically rich songs that contain deep spiritual food that nourishes the soul in content. Such as …exalting Christ and honouring the written word of God by preaching whole chapters of it in context in services. There is a world of difference between churches that have a pastor that jokes throughout his sermon about juvenile things, runs back and forth yelling at the congregation to “amen” him, and who is introduced so highly & loudly as if he’s a cage fighter… and the church that preaches through entire passages of scripture, sings deeply theological songs that exalt the finished work of Jesus, who regularly win souls from house to house or street to street, and who thoroughly equips their leadership by discipling them intensively in how to rightly handle God’s written word. One church honours God with their preaching, sacraments, evangelism, worship and fellowship – the other is simply doing Jesus lip service by using Him as a crutch to further promote an entirely different mini-kingdom: that of the visionary who stands at the top of the mountain as the great almighty leader and declares “this church is successful because I implemented these trendy gimmicks, and I want all other churches to be as successful.” The true pastor shepherds the flock: by rightly dividing the word of truth, and preaching all of scripture in its proper context. They train their leaders to evangelise biblically by preaching the law and gospel – repentance from sin and forgiveness in Christ. They don’t hype their church. They don’t hold back on declaring hard truths such as pointing out ancient or modern heresies that arise. They unwaveringly preach the Word of God as infallible and inerrant. They have their family in order, and thrive on helping their flock raise their kids just as wisely. They love Jesus so much that their lives are consumed by Him and His finished work at Calvary. Their joy is found in Him and not the signs and wonders that false prophets and apostles claim are necessary for a minister to wield. They want the church to be pure, holy, literate, wise, loving, truthful and in awe of God’s goodness.
This can only occur with a high view of God and a humble view of themselves as sinners saved by grace alone.
Salvation is of the Lord. There is no way around this fact – and to throw gimmicks at local congregations that work on larger contexts is a cheap way to avoid the hard, long, shepherding task of looking after a hungry congregation of sheep.